An excerpt from A Different Acquaintance, by D. L. Pughe
The porcelain room of the great fortress of Würzburg is in a high archway connecting one enormous chilly stone chamber to the next. Those rooms are warmed only by massive tapestries that seem to comfort and clothe the shivering stone. Tiny spotlights frame the paintings there, then glint off of sentries of shining armor and caress the thoughtful faces of ancient lindenwood sculptures. The archway of porcelain is instead lined with windows and full of bright lamps and sunlight. Coming out of the dark Mayer ducked his head while entering as though leaving Socrates low cave.
Believing the ancient plates and bowls could take the weather, the uniformed guard had flung the windows open. A crisp spring wind rising up over the vineyards surrounding the castle was happily flapping the curtains, pulling them out of the window frames where they were licking the air.
Mayer had arrived in town the previous evening. After dropping his things at a small pension he made his way up to the fortress in the dark. The huge saints and gods that line the walkways of the bridge across the river Main stood tall in the moonlight, each embellished with a touch of gold on the belt or sword or crown. Five times human size, they are grey and harmless guardians, menacing only to the sky. Mayer approached the castle with an unexpected feeling of safety.
It followed him back to the hotel that night and had returned this morning as he again passed by the guardians of the bridge. The safety lingered as Mayer made his way up to the castle then through its chilly dim chambers and now stood in the light before the arranged dishes and bowls. They would have particularly delighted his grandmother who collected blue and white porcelain for decades and kept it in a mahogany cabinet her father had carved for her with sliding doors. Platters and bowls were brought out and used on celebratory occasions, filled for a brief moment with steaming meats, potatoes and gravies and stuffed cabbage and colorful salads. Then each dish was carefully washed and put away, their patterns enhanced by being in the midst of others. Dishes from distant countries with elaborate shapes joined local objects of shared hue, making them into a region all their own. The land of blue and white.
At his grandmother’s house in old Buda, Mayer spent many hours as a child looking at her dishes. She would slide open the mahogany doors and take out one or two, tracing the floral arabesques on a Moroccan saucer with an unsteady finger, then pointing out how it was also on a Chinese cup and a bowl from the Netherlands and one from America. These patterns delighted her and clearly made her feel hopeful. She often mentioned the ‘silk road’ which, like the Black Sea, Mayer for many years harbored as a literal vision. He believed there was a road paved in silk which billowed and shone, blue and white stretched between far dots on the globe that could ripple and lift up into the air. And at one end lay a huge black sea with waves of ebony or tar. And that image, in turn, imbued how he saw the dark trunk where she kept the broken pieces from the past. She did not like to speak of how they were broken and yet was particularly proud of the ones she had managed to mend. “They’re still good,” she would say.
A few years ago, on a return visit to Budapest, Mayer (now an aging professor in a different land) invited his grandmother to join some of his colleagues for lunch at a café in Pest. Morris, an American philosopher with an affection for poetry, was seated next to her and they began an animated conversation that ended in curious looks, then perplexed silence, and finally laughter between them. His grandmother’s small frame shook and her face grew bright from the exertion while her hands folded helplessly in her lap. Morris bent over his plate choking on his wine, laughing while wiping his eyes with his napkin. Mayer’s grandmother, in halting English, explained that they had been conversing for some time about a thing they both share in great affection. It began with Morris asking her if she knew Paul Celan. She enthusiastically exclaimed that she collected it. Somehow they proceeded until the hard plates and bowls of Mayer’s grandmother’s vision collided with Morris’s thoughts of the Romanian poet and they discovered their mistake. Now this story clung to Mayer’s notion of porcelain itself, as though phrases from Celan’s poetry were secretly etched in light relief in the bottom of his grandmother’s cups, visible only when the tea is gone and they are tipped to the light.
The tear, half,
the sharper lens, moveable,
brings the images home to you.
Peering into the cases before him now, Mayer saw a plate brushed with blue figures and gestures from the great Qing poems, airy and incomplete. Imported to the West, these were copied on bowls and the human features become more angular, the eyes wider, fluttering details of landscape began to encroach upon the mist. Taken back the other direction along the same road, they were imitated on cups, with inflections of local life creeping into the faces until a whole new race emerged.
From blue and white, as a child Mayer mistakenly believed that photography evolved from porcelain. He assumed colors were exiled leaving black and white in order to highlight pattern and setting. Later, when he learned this was just a limit of photography at the start, his first and partial knowledge lingered on. For Mayer they remain intertwined, one a cerulean silk road, the other paved by Daguerre and ending in Sudek’s dark haunting portraits of Mionší Forest.
Mayer’s grandmother’s collection was his first experience of desire and unembarrassed pride in ownership not based on value. It was her need to gather certain things all in one place. Each piece joined a group only after lengthy, discriminating nomination and acceptance. He recognized it in himself, as a student Mayer had scraped together every penny to buy one of Sudek’s views of Janacek’s garden, an iron chair between two trees with a carpet of fallen leaves. Even now, when it was pulled from its box and admired, his stomach recalled the two weeks that followed its purchase when he was forced to go without lunch. What was its power? An empty chair in an overgrown garden, waiting amid neglect. He had never seen anything more haunting.
Most collections begin innocently. A thing draws our attention. Something about it provokes an intangible recognition, a sensation of kinship, an evocation of memory. You long to hold it, and then: hold onto it. Then comes the hunt and gather of the very particular. Prominence comes into the picture, then the notion that others understand who are drawn to the same thing, and share the ways of weighing it. A scale of excellence begins to emerge and condition each new acquisition. The innocent delight at the start of the collection now grows more serious. Discrimination takes place. At some point early pieces are exiled, and each addition can go hand in hand with exclusion. In his grandmother’s case it was not pieces that were expensive, but ones found for a handful of change. It was plates or bowls or cups which reminded her of something, most of all of a time of peace, times of tea and coffee on calm sunny afternoons, times with so many relatives there, laughing, their forks clinking against the plates.
When Mayer was ten he cut school one afternoon to go up into Jánoshegy forest with his friend András. They shared a strong dislike of their 4th form teacher, and an interest in being out of doors. After racing through the empty cafeteria, they took the tram up Buda hill to the forest, then rode through the woods on the Children’s Railway using the last bit of change they could scrape together. The Gyermekvasút (as it is called) winds through the thick forest and is managed by older children, giving every other kid on board a sense of entitlement. They got off in a stretch of the forest with tall firs and rough terrain of needles and brush at Virágvölgy. It was still cold with the last traces of winter in the air. Mayer and András used their knives to cut two willows and strip them into swords that made desirable whooshing sounds. They began to fence on a cluster of rocks in a clearing among the trees.
Then András tipped Mayer off the embankment and he feigned death by rolling down onto a mound of twigs and leaves. When they poked around it was a vast structure of compressed bits of wood and trash. An old and abandoned nest, or so Mayer told himself as his curiosity overtook respect for the creature that might live there. The crush of things must have left little room for its inhabitant. But then a large brown pack rat rushed out, its round ears flattened back, and scuttled up the hill to a hollow in the stones. From there it shrieked in fearless anger. Mayer and András stopped pawing their way into the nest and broke their swords, using them to attempt to repair the area they had damaged and build a small tunnel for the rat to return to its fort. They departed grudgingly respectful of its creator. Since they had no coins left, they began to walk in silence along the edge of the tracks through the forest. Darkness was falling when the train reappeared. They showed their empty pockets as it rolled by and a boy attendant helped to pull them on board. He operated in silence too, handing them each transfers even though they hadn’t asked.
Mayer now leaned out the open window of the German fortress in Würzburg into a similar spring chill. He recalled Leonardo’s sepia sketch the Rain of Things, a crashing deluge of human objects falling from the sky in random clutter. Rakes and boxes, tools and all manner of household stuff. The moral warning Leonardo intended was lost, Mayer thought only of how it might have delighted the pack rat of Jánoshegy. And possibly his grandmother.
In the year she died, her collection of porcelain was shared among the grandchildren and cousins. Mayer asked for only three broken and repaired pieces, the ones she had proudly shown him in the past. Two had survived the war, one the failed revolution. And, with no objections from any of her survivors, Mayer took away a box of shards from her small dark trunk. From time to time he would look at them, fragments of blue and white and sometimes the grey of clay in between, and see two bits that might fit together. Now, he realized, of all things—even his photographs—this box was what he would rescue if there were ever a threat and a need to suddenly go.
Tiny bits of green were timidly adorning the contorted vines far below Würzburg castle while traces of snow still hid in the brown furrows. A cool wind was sweeping up the hill. Mayer leaned into its embrace, the curtain flapping against his ear, a moist spray beginning to cover his glasses making it nearly impossible to see. But there was also sun, and a brief moment of safety.
Leonardo da Vinci, The Rain of Things, The Royal Library